Sunday, April 30, 2006

Post-Olin options

You know what I just realized?

I don't have to get a job or go to grad school in engineering after Olin. (Yeah, yeah. "What took her so long?") I can find a way to do anything I want, including becoming an art student, which is what I dreamed of studying when I was applying to college, and still secretly really want to try (I was going to study abroad in Italy this year, but didn't have the language prerequisites to take the art classes I would be going for in the first place). So I could...

  • Work for a design firm
  • Grad school in engineering
  • Go to art school, studying drawing, graphic design, digital media & interface design
  • Volunteer overseas (Peace Corps or something)
  • Teach (for America, or otherwise; abroad, even)
  • Grad school in education
  • Travel the country interviewing teachers and writing a book on engineering education
  • Anything Else In The World
Some of these will obviously be harder than others; some I'd have to work full-time and study evenings, some I'll have to live in lousy apartments and eat ramen out of my car, but that's fine; I don't need much to live, and in a pinch I can always tutor kids in math. I'm not trapped, and I'm nowhere near screwed, and I can become an art student or whatever I want to be. I can. It's okay. And not a waste of my life at all. I'm not obligated to become an engineer and a professor of engineering straight off the bat. Or ever. And I'm grown now and don't have to ask my parents' permission.


The Gift

Ran across this John Maeda post that I'd like to share. Original at

My favorite parts:

What Sasaki meant, I think, is that it is a real gift to think of all kinds of things you can possibly do. Unfortunately, it can be a curse because it prevents you from ever doing anything at all... So the gift of ideas, is the curse of doing nothing.

And then this...

"Doing" is outright dirty in the land of pure academia. There is a saying that supports this mindset with negative connotations, "Those who do, do. Those who can't, teach." I would change this to, "Those who are young, should do. Those who teach, should do too." Do not waste your precious gift while young and able. Do. And do not fear the curse of "the gift."

That's pretty much what I needed to hear at this point in my life. I think I'm going to nail the words "DO SOMETHING" to my wall, no matter where I happen to live; it means a lot on a myriad of levels to me, and is a reminder to kick my butt into the right kind of action.

Now off to do something.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Inter-class rifts & apathy: last year's take

Found this on my D: drive while cleaning out old stuff. It's from the end of last year when the upper-lower class rift and apathy were big concerns for many students; slightly outdated now, but still interesting especially since '08 is now the sophomore class and we have a new group of freshmen (who are different from classes which preceded them, as all four classes differ from each other).

Thoughts welcome. Old text, unedited, follows; it looks like I emailed this to some people, but I don't remember who. Have things changed? How much of the concerns have we fixed, what do we still need to deal with, and what will never go away?

Thoughts on the upper-lower class rift, and lack of involvement.

First: This is nobody's fault. I'm not trying to point the finger. However, this is everyone's responsibility. I know I feel the need to Do Something, and I think others feel the same way.

What follows is a transcribed version of some thoughts I had over the weekend; I'm trying to process them into more useful form, but I wanted to make the raw stuff available to you all, just in case. They won't be particularly coherent and will likely be self-contradictory at times. Don't feel obligated to read this if you're busy - just take a glance if you're interested. I really want to talk to people about this, so if you feel like talking, let me know.


Upperclassmen have grown and turned outside Olin for some of our activities - jobs, classes, clubs, organizations; we're looking forward and preparing to leave, trying to learn about industry and grad school.

We, the upperclassmen, had strong mentoring. The partners were mentored by the faculty, the juniors by the partners, and the sophomores by the juniors (an oversimplification, but you get the idea). Because we were mentored so well, we mentor others in turn - but this ethos needs to be passed down, and it is fading over time.

Frosh need to realize they can and should take the initiative. And it's not just frosh, not by far. We all need to realize this (students, staff, and faculty). You can't just move when asked - you need to be doing the asking.

The first class took tremendous ownership of the college, and the second class took a little - and now it still seems like Olin "belongs" to '06 and '07. This is great. However, '08 comes in, sees Olin belonging to the older students, and lets it belong to them - so it doesn't belong as much to the frosh this year.

"Oh, we aren't as senior as they are. We should follow and respect their seniority and when we're older it will be our turn to lead." I appreciate that they respect what we've already done, but just because we've been here before doesn't mean they shouldn't come in.

The flip side of that is independence as a class. "The college already belongs to them; they're working together, they don't need us. Well, I reckon we should meander amongst ourselves. Maybe we don't need them so much either. We can do whatever we want to. If we're crazy enough, they might listen. Since we're 'outside the system,' that's the only way we can change things - by being radical."

This, in turn, leads to: "Those crazy immature kids! I try to teach them, but they aren't grown enough to listen." (I'm stereotyping and oversimplifying like crazy here - we love the first-years, we really do; but sometimes there seems between the classes the sort of attitude an older sister takes when she watches her little brother swagger into the kitchen with green hair and a nose piercing. Gross, gross oversimplification; it's not all like this, it's not one-way, but sometimes it happens.)

There has been concern expressed by some upperclassmen that some frosh are undertaking increasingly dangerous exploits - things that are on the fine boundary between being awesomely offbeat and inventive and adventurous vs being a little too crazy, a little too dangerous, a little too much potential for harm without precautions being taken to really minimize those dangers. We care about you guys, and we don't want anything to happen to you - but we don't say you can't do this, or wag our fingers in front of your face. Ought we to?

The upper classes were thrust into leadership. There simply was nobody else around to lead. If we didn't, everything would break down. In contrast, '08 arrived to a school that was already running; they /could/ take on leadership - nothing stops them from doing this, and several first-years have certainly stepped up - but they didn't /have/ to. There were people already picking up the slack. So it's not a huge surprise you see less involvement. With the time crunches we have here, if something isn't absolutely vital, it usually gets passed up in favor of the other fires we have to fight.

Should we have something to put first-years in that position? All-frosh committees? How are the class reps doing?

There are, as mentioned before, first-years that have taken on leadership positions. How do we support and encourage those frosh? They're probably the ones that would have stepped up regardless of necessity or where they went, the ones that already had those kinds of qualities exhibited - but just because "they'd do it anyway" doesn't mean we shouldn't support them. At the same time, we need to bring out the people in the background. How do we get those who are not stepping forth now to step forth more?

Fight 'superhero' syndrome. Sometimes there is a mentality, when looking at people you admire, to think that it's wonderful that they have done all this stuff, and you wish you could do that - but that you can't and never will be able to. Even when they tell you that you can do it, you say "Oh, but you're special." This keeps people from starting clubs, from tutoring/TAing, from stepping up and asking folks questions, from talking to professors about classes. They see other students with great professorial relationships, with huge activism, and wish they could break into that sort of energy, that sort of involvement. How do you get it across to people that all you really have to do is just start doing what you want to - you don't have to "break into" any sort of inner circle?

This changing-things business is a risk. We all said we were risk-takers when we were trying to get admitted here. But I don't think we are, so much. I think we sleepwalk through much of our lives (only with a lot more caffeine in the bloodstream than most) and do what we think we are expected to. I know that I didn't do a lot of things I thought I should do because I was afraid that I would fail classes, or tick folks off, or something else terrible - and there is a definite tradeoff, doing what you want to do and maybe succeeding by 'normal' standards. I'm not saying we ought to say "to heck with normal standards!" and go forth and be passionate and completely ignore the fact that we have math homework due the next morning... but sometimes you have to recognize you're as bound to your duties and limitations as you want yourself to be.

Last year, Alex Dillon sent out an email to the student body asking us to wake up, think about a few things, discuss some stuff - voiced a lot of concerns, had a huge informal conversation in the auditorium, and there was a lot of energy from that... but not much of it remains now. Perhaps we need another such event. (If you have no idea what I am talking about, ask any '06 or '07er).

It shouldn't be a one-way mentoring relationship. I have learned a lot of things from the frosh class this year. They have a lot to share.

It is comfortable to have your own social bubble, regardless of whether you're a first, second, or third year. Having a tight group of friends is good. Very, very good. At the same time, if we're to avoid hermetically sealing ourselves off, we need to foray outside those groups occasionally. The trouble is when you foray outside, everyone else is usually in their respective groups of friends - so when you try to go out and explore and get to know more people better, it's more difficult than perhaps it ought to be. There's this activation energy that becomes more difficult to break through as the year goes on.

What helped with this last year? One thing is clubs. I got to know many upperclassmen through clubs. Clubs are nowhere as active this year. Social culture is more informal - that is, it doesn't go through "official" club channels, clubs themselves last year were pretty dang informal anyway - it's organized through carpediem, it's groups of friends going out to places and playing games together. Informality is great. Carpediem is great. But informally organized events tend to be gotten together by groups of people that already know each other. It's something to be aware of.

Another thing - and I do not have much experience or knowledge of this - is parties (the ones with alcohol, I mean). They're places where different social groups come and get to know each other, really relaxed and just hanging out. But within a party you can still see the groups of friends clumping. Also, this only works for the people that want to go to parties. It seems there are many more parties this year. Maybe that's our way of trying to break down that gap of knowing people. I've got nothing against parties - I think they're a lot of fun, I think it's great folks are hanging out and having a good time - but here is one thought: if this is all we can find to get us together - well, that seems a little bit sad. Maybe we need more different kinds of parties. Tea parties. Chocolate parties. Art parties. Music parties. Get more interest groups.

It becomes easier and easier to come into Olin with preconceptions of what it will be like, and what college life will be like, because there is more of it built each year. Perhaps we need to put forth some cultural expectations in an introduction to frosh before they come in. Candidates' Weekend introduces them to our culture, Orientation continues the job. Sean McBride set up a Hitchhiker's Guide to Olin Culture (almost like an Olin culture wikipedia) over the summer, and it got great traffic and was fantastic at introducing people to lots of inside terms and jokes and social norms, but it also died out. Maybe it's time for a revival over this summer; it seems like a logical cyclical process to go through, rising at the start of each year.

No amount of programs or initiatives we set up will change the place if people themselves don't change the way they think and live. So we shouldn't be concerned, perhaps, with starting the Program That Will Change Our Lives! but instead with just... changing our lives. And changing the lives of those around us. And getting them to change those around them, et cetera.

You will never, ever, ever have enough time to do this. You will always, always, always have other things to do. Sometimes you have to put things aside. Sometimes you have to stop saying "later" and do things now. Sometimes you have to pay a certain price - like a sleep debt, or an annoyed friend, or a B instead of an A because you didn't study the night before - to do things you think you should do. It's up to you to decide whether the cost is worth it.

What were the big things that changed you last year? Here are mine: Mechanical Nature cookies with Zhenya and the other girls in the class first semester. Alex Dillon's email to the entire student body at the end of last year. Watching some of the frosh come in and take initiative this year - it's tremendously inspiring. Having some of the upperclassmen I really admired tell me at the end of last year, out of the blue, that they thought I was doing fantastic things, that I'd learned a lot, and that I was doing good stuff. Being asked for advice for the first time by a '08-er. Jimmy Rising's Human System Dynamics "pseudoclass."

Are we just too big? Are these problems that will never be completely solved, issues that will never totally go away? Is the generation gap unavoidable?

Just because a problem can never be fixed, does that mean we should stop trying?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Project idea: Electric-acoustic travel guitar

I've been kicking this idea around for a little bit. Here's the problem: I like to travel light, I like to make music, and I play the piano. Solution: Learn guitar. However an ordinary guitar is on the large side, on the loud side, and not headphone-able for my suitemates' sanity. Travel guitars are expensive.

But what if I got this Martin backpacker steel string guitar? And then followed this Instructables tutorial to slap a disassembled piezo buzzer into the body as a cheap (yet supposedly still decent) pickup, leading to something like this Martin backpacker electric-acoustic, except that slapping in my own pickup wouldn't cost an extra $100. Use the money I saved to pick up a cheap amp.

Then if I have extra time and money, perhaps add in this kit which is a preamp with headphone output for $37. Or machine little attachable "wings" to fill out the Martin into a guitar that can actually sit on my lap, rather like this Aria Sinsonido travel guitar.

Essentially, for $50 worth of electronics and random material, transform a $160 Martin into a $340 Aria. The only thing I need to decide is whether I'll actually play it if I build it. No sense in building a guitar I'll play for a month and then abandon. I'm terrible at figuring out what I'm going to follow through on, which is making me more cautious now of what I say I'm going to do.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Buying in without selling out

Had a long conversation with Gill last week, since registration for next semester is coming up. I told him I was afraid I wasn't becoming a "Real ECE" - I can push things around on paper, and sort of plug stuff into breadboards, and solder and code, but it doesn't all fit together; I still feel uncomfortable playing in ECE-space, and I graduate next year. I can stumble about in piano-space, drawing-space, to a slight extent in coding-space, and pretty decently in abstract-math-space, but in ECE space, I don't know anything. I'm still terrified that someone's going to find out that I'm a fake ECE. That last sentence was an oversimplification; I know the "fake it till you make it" thing, and I know I'm mildly competent and I know how to learn the stuff, but there's still a sense of unease that I'll be a person with a degree that I can't live up to.

Gill said there was a tipping point of sorts where that "Huh, I feel ok with this!" thing happens and you become able to play, and that it seems worst right before you hit that point, so I was probably right on track to get the revelation either this summer or early next year. He also said the important thing wasn't necessarily to learn ECE stuff, but to learn how to learn ECE stuff, because "ECE stuff" changes so rapidly and there's too darn much of it for anyone to cram into their minds.

The other half of the conversation was tougher. He asked what I wanted to do after Olin. I told him I wanted to become a professor, one who made changes in engineering education - maybe even a university administrator, if I could do that and not drown in bureaucracy or lose touch with teaching. (And before I become a professor, I want to work in industry, probably at a design firm, and do volunteer work.) I know that to become a prof at a good school where I could make a worldwide difference, I need to go to a good grad school. For which I need good grades. Which I... don't have, exactly (they're not abysmal, but they're not gorgeous by any stretch). And that I would need to stop doing so much tutoring and extracurriculars and little things that I think do good for other people but that "don't count" so much and buckle down on my schoolwork and doing research.

It's a quandary. If I do what I want to do to help out schools now, I won't be able to get very far. My possibilities of becoming a good prof will be limited by not going to grad school and getting a phd. If I'm selfish now and work my way up, I'll be able to help so many more people in the future - but that means having less of an effect on them now. The question, as Gill put it, is whether to buy into the system you want to change. Ultimately, it's a decision I have to make and live with.

I think my answer is yes. That I need to be selfish and buckle down now to be able to change what I want to change when I grow up. But I don't want to sell out. I'm happy doing what I'm doing now; I was happy being "Very Good Studious Asian Girl" before, and they were both effective - just different kinds of effectiveness, different kinds of happy. I can't go back to the way I was before, isolated and selfishly focusing on grades (or at least focusing on my own more than I do now), without feeling like I've lost something. (Having a life, for instance. And being a little human.)

How do you buy into the "academic respectability" system without losing your soul?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Home for a reunion

I feel asleep on the pool cover last night and was roused from my sleep by a 9-year-old asking me how to use earrings to kill somebody and a 2-year old bellowing "YOU'RE FUNNY!" and promptly climbing on top of my stomach to play.

Welcome to the Lim-Chua family reunion! Where my mother and her 7 sisters, her mother, uncle, sister-in-law, their son, his wife, and everybody's kids crowd into our house and necessitate at least a half-hour wait to use any bathroom - and we have four bathrooms. We're from all over; Canada, Seattle, Boston, Chicago, Manila, Shanghai. Everyone likes food.

I'll be back at Olin on Monday.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Why is engineering uncool?

A friend who works at 3M asked me a question the other day.

“One thing is clear - you love math, science and technology and it’s fun. So, why doesn’t everyone have the same enthusiasm for it as you do? Or, at least, why aren’t there more?”

There’s no reason for them to love it. Why should they? My engineering classmates and I know our answer to this already. It’s how we get ahead. It’s about doing things nobody’s done before because otherwise we’ll be treading the same beaten path and progress will never happen. We’re crazy enough and stubborn enough to Do It Anyway.

We’re anomalies. For your average kid in K-12, innovation gets the snot beaten out of you, both socially and academically. I remember getting bad marks on a physics test because I used one of Einstein’s thought experiments (with moving reference frames) to solve the shoot-the-monkey problem, because I thought it was fun. I remember getting some of the worst grades on math time tests in grade school because I never drilled my times tables at home - I liked spending my time piddling around with such “useless” things as reading Darwin or learning about injection molding. The intellectual high I got out of doing that outweighed the “punishments” I got for it; low marks and the other kids thinking I was a freak.

Most kids don’t get rewarded for being innovative. They get rewarded for filling in the bubbles with a #2 pencil. They get rewarded for doing things the grownups feel safe about calling “unique” and “innovative” because it fits this nice grown-up mold of what is “safely innovative” - just a wee bit off the beaten path (and onto another path that we grown-ups have mapped out for you and call “innovative” - can you find it, can you read our minds?) When kids pull stuff that’s truly crazy, sometimes grownups get freaked out. And that’s hardly encouraging if we want the next generation to grow up unafraid of playing.

What scares me is not that the adults of the world are looking at the state of things and going “AH! We are not innovative enough!” We, the young engineers and hackers of the future, have exactly the same reaction.

What scares me is that the adult response seems to be this: “Ok, kids - we’re going to put these scantron sheet problems on innovation for you; fill them out FASTER! FASTER! MORE! If you can fill in the “innovation” bubbles correctly, we MUST be doing well! NUMBER TWO PENCILS, EVERYBODY!”

How can we change this?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Things I learned today

  1. Crumbly fudge cannot be sintered together.
  2. Cream is delicious! (My father was lactose intolerant, so most of the milk in my house was soy, powdered, or at best skim when I was a kid.)
  3. Old buildings in Boston are gorgeous on the inside. The Somervillains and I went into the Gamble Mansion on Commonwealth Ave. in the wee hours of Saturday to storyboard for our 48 hour film competition entry, and mmm, ballrooms.
  4. (a cup of cream later) Cream is addictive!

In other news, I made fudge for the first time today thanks to Beth Sterling's efforts to make me cooking-literate. It's tasty and has to be chiseled out of the pan, hence the resulting crumbles and the sintering comment above.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Classroom bug reports: asking for help productively

Want to double your tutoring productivity, or the productivity of your teachers?

As a TA, I realized last year that I spent most of my tutoring time helping students figure out exactly what their problems are. As an engineer, I know that once you clearly define a problem, you’re halfway to its solution. And as a programmer, I’d learned about a particularly efficient way of defining a problem: writing a bug report. In geek parlance, bug reports are standard “I found a problem!” forms that testers and users fill out to tell a development team what they need to work on. It details precisely what actions lead to what results, allowing the coder to get down to the business of fixing things.

Bugs aren’t so clear-cut in academic situations, but I wondered if formalizing the action of pinning down your problem before asking for help would make any difference in classes. One of the big things students need to learn in school is how to ask for help well, but nobody ever explicitly teaches you that. Once I began using these bug reports to formalize my own questions, I found that I was able to ask for help much more effectively; last semester I started asking my students to use them to explain their problems concisely and well to me - and to themselves. It’s too soon to see any effects, but I’m hoping to roll it out in my tutorials at the start of next semester and see what happens.

Here’s the explanation and request I send out when people ask me for help. Some of you might already do this in one form or another. Feel free to hop in, comment, or tell me this is obvious and everyone else has been doing it for years. Do you think bug reports are useful outside the realm of software development?

Bug Report Explanation
Dear [Name],
Thanks for emailing me and saying you’ll stop by. Before coming in, it would be awesome if you could write up a bug report. I’ve found that they help me focus my thinking and solve problems in my own work much faster. So I thought I’d try it with other folks too. Explaining the problem quickly with bug reports also has the side effect of making it a lot easier for my teachers to help me, so I do have some ulterior motives here.

Here’s the format I use; answers aren’t long, just 1-3 sentences or coherent fragments thereof. (I make one for each issuse I’ve hit).

[Coursename] Bug # [Positive Integer]

(What homework problem, lab, reading, proof, or page am I talking about? As specific as possible - topic, book, page number, problem number, or even which sentence of a problem the issue is with.)

(What, exactly, am I stuck on? What specific piece of information is it that I don’t have but need desperately?)

Tried so far:
(What have I tried so far to fix the problem myself? What happened and why did/didn’t it work?)

(Given all this, what would I like the prof/TA/whoever to do for me?)

It’s really short and easy to hack out the couple sentences once you get the hang of it, and half the time writing a bug report actually fixes the problem for me, which is totally sweet.

Give it a spin and let me know how it works for you - either come in with these or shoot them off to me beforehand.